Path to the Pad: Florida SLS team prepares for world's most powerful core stage

2 longtime colleagues watch over Boeing-built rocket stage’s transition from testing to stacking

April 13, 2021 in Space

After working together on the space shuttle and seeing that program end, Subashini “Suba” Iyer and John Cipolletti are back to bring a new era of human space exploration to the moon and ultimately Mars.

The duo lead NASA Space Launch System, or SLS, operations for Boeing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Their team of about 30 is looking forward to the arrival of the Boeing-built SLS core stage, now that it has completed its Green Run test series at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Some members of the team have been working on SLS since the beginning of the program, including Cipolletti, SLS Operations chief engineer and SLS Florida site lead. He has served in numerous roles at Kennedy for SLS.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Cipolletti. “Our main function has been developing requirements for Kennedy Space Center and making sure the work we prepare is executable. Now that the vehicle will be here, we are moving from theory into practice.”

Cipolletti thinks the Space Coast will be surprised to see the size of the rocket – it will stand taller than the Statue of Liberty once stacked – and even more so when it launches the first Artemis mission around the moon as soon as later this year. That launch of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft will be followed by Artemis II, a crewed mission with a planned orbit to simulate later landing missions, and then Artemis III, which aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon. According to NASA, SLS will have about 15 percent more thrust at liftoff than the Apollo Saturn V rocket, making it the most powerful rocket ever built.

“We are going to rattle windows and a few home alarms are going to go off,” said Cipolletti.

For a time, Cipolletti served as SLS Launch Integrated Product Team lead as well as chief engineer. Iyer, his former shuttle colleague at United Space Alliance, or USA, joined SLS from the CST-100 Starliner Commercial Crew program in June 2020 to assume Cipoletti’s former IPT leadership role.

“SLS is one of the biggest rockets in the world,” said Iyer. “This is going to take us back to the moon and beyond – our first time sending humans this far beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo, to areas we haven’t explored yet. We are going to be making history.”

About a dozen SLS teammates from Kennedy were at Stennis to support the core stage’s successful hot fire test on March 18. The team also has been excited to see other SLS hardware – such as the solid rocket boosters – arrive at Kennedy over the past year. The Boeing/United Launch Alliance-built Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, or ICPS, was the first piece of SLS hardware delivered in 2017.

Some of the team from Kennedy has been helping with predelivery activities that include core stage refurbishment, loading flight software, and removing sensors and connections to the test stand. Once the core stage arrives at Kennedy's Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, additional teammates may be brought from Stennis to help with work there.

Predelivery activities also include development and integration of operations maintenance requirements and launch commit criteria; instructions for contingency situations; and logistics for flight hardware, ground support equipment and tooling required at Kennedy. The team partners with NASA on operations activities such as reviewing NASA Kennedy work authorization documents relevant to Boeing hardware.

Through stacking, power up, a range of systems checks, and final rollout to the launch pad, the Boeing Florida team will provide structural and specialized system support to both NASA and its contractors. The Boeing team works from the Titusville office and at Kennedy’s Processing Control center next to the VAB.

The team also has been working on future missions. Some are supporting development testing and other pre-production activities of the Exploration Upper Stage design for Artemis IV and beyond, while continuing to support the core stage and ICPS.

“Our team is already reviewing Exploration Upper Stage layouts and drawings from a launch perspective and giving feedback to the Huntsville design team, based on lessons learned from the core stage effort,” Iyer said.

When the time comes to launch the first Artemis mission, the Boeing Kennedy team will assist in the Launch Control Center, ensuring they’ll be front and center when history is made.

“It is getting close. It’s pretty iconic for the team to see hardware showing up,” Iyer said.